Sibling Separation

Adoption Thoughts
7 min readApr 20, 2022

A BBC programme about siblings separated in the care system hit the headlines recently (well, a few months ago!) and seemed to cause a bit of an uproar in the press about the unfairness, but then equally as quickly seems to have been forgotten again. There is a link below (you’d probably need to be in the UK to view it).

The programme is about the care system but the same issues could crop up with adoption too I suppose. I think that people often don’t realise how tricky it is to keep siblings together. As this programme says, about half of all sibling groups in care are split up. And keeping them in contact, if it happens at all, is often a lot less frequent than if those children had been adopted.

I was initially surprised too, but thinking back to my son’s experience he was separated from his sister while in care several months before we adopted him, and he did not see her again until he was adopted (and it was us who had initiated that, there was no suggestion from social services about doing it). If he had stayed in care there is no guarantee that he would have seen her again as they were now placed with different carers a long distance away from each other, and they had no plan to keep the relationship going.

No I’m not trying to big up adoption here, just pointing it out because long term care/guardianship is the often discussed as the alternative to adoption. Being an alternative doesn’t always mean better though! The care system needs to be vastly improved before it can realistically function as a surrogate parent in my opinion.

Meetings between family members in the care system are made in neutral ‘contact centres’. This has led to it being called ‘contact’ (as in ‘I’m going to contact today’), a description that has spread into adoption too rather than having something a bit less institutional like ‘meeting up’ or ‘keeping in touch’. Adoption is meant to be the warm, fuzzy part of the care system really, but the more utilitarian jargon of social services does creep in sometimes.

A contact centre is basically just a local branch of social services, albeit often run by a charity so that people who are skeptical about the authorities are not put off using it. It has typical social services furnishings; the room that the kids meet the parents or siblings in has functional chairs and tables, with a smattering of games and activities. Looks a little like a school room really. ‘Contact’ is an hour or two face-to-face, maybe once a month. My late mother used to volunteer in one of these centres. It was thoroughly depressing according to her, and she stopped after a couple of years. Mums (never Dads — they weren’t invited!) would just play with their phones (texting and Snake rather than Facebook and Angry Birds back then) ignoring their kids who were left to entertain themselves unless there was social worker intervention. Neither parents nor kids really wanted it, there was a feeling that they had been forced to be there, it wasn’t really consensual. And that’s more-or-less exactly what my son and his sister remember about it too, nothing much has changed. The only people getting anything out of it are the social workers who can tick a box. But let’s face it, it is all that resources allow.

Now of course adoption isn’t exactly a shining light in the world of ‘contact’. Too many stories of adopters just giving up trying to get anything useful for their kids. But you do at least have a bit more control. Foster carers just have to accept whatever social services demand of them, however inadequate that may be, and however capable or poorly resourced that particular local authority’s department is. Adopters are freer to choose their methods, frequency and suitability, so long as the other parent/carer/social services are able to cooperate.

But why would siblings be split up in the first place? On the face of it, it seems unimaginably callous. Not that far removed from the American policy of removing migrant kids from their families under Donald Trump. Heartbreak and heartache. Kids in care have already been through massive trauma, why inflict more?

Well yes, I agree. And so does the government; the policy is to attempt to keep siblings together. But my son and his sister are currently living over 50 miles apart with parents/carers of very different backgrounds and ways of life from each other and their birth parents. So it obviously didn’t happen in our case. We manage to keep the relationship going. Just. Although it wouldn’t happen without his sister’s foster carer going above and beyond her job to facilitate — social services were not able to do that.

I know ‘normal’ families where siblings rarely see each other of course, that often happens when parents split up, or if older siblings have moved out. That is accepted by society and passes without comment mostly. But adoption and care is compared to an old-fashioned nuclear family, this being the gold standard that we should all aspire to in the Western world apparently.

However. What if the family group is 3 or more kids? When we were waiting to be matched a lot of groups of 4 or even 5 siblings were waiting. It may be a stereotype, but there is a grain of truth to say that a lot of troubled families are very large. Most people have one child at a time, and that can be exhausting and difficult, especially if (as is usually the case with adoption) they have additional needs. But 3 or more at once? From experience I’d genuinely say that we’d not have managed to adopt more than one. I know an adopter who took on a sibling group of 3 and I expressed admiration at taking on so many at the same time. The reply was “there are 4 other siblings actually”, and they were quite disappointed that they’d not been matched with the others too. 6 months later they were perhaps realising why.

Another reason why sibling groups are split up is simply house size. UK law dictates that children 7 and over should be in separate rooms if they are the opposite sex, and generally speaking social services seem to interpret this as being a separate room for each child regardless of sex, for safeguarding purposes. In the case of adoption this means forever, so you have to show you can do this right from the start, even if the children are under 7. Yes ‘normal’ families are never checked for this, but it would be a bit remiss of the state to ignore their own laws when placing children they are responsible for. In practice most UK houses are small and their bedrooms are tiny, so even a 4 bedroom house will only have 3 single bedrooms suitable for 1 child max anyway. To place a large group of kids you need a large house, and most people in the UK can’t afford that. Within 5 miles of me the cheapest 4 bed house currently for sale is a crumbling pile of shite (sorry, a ‘doer-upper’) from the 60s at just over £300000. The average is over £500000. For context the average salary in the UK is just under £600 per week, or £31000 per year, so even two people’s salaries struggle to buy “family” houses. And obviously not everyone wants to live in a crappy house in an inconvenient location, or over-extend themselves financially, just so that they can adopt. So if you want a more diverse set of adopters then you need to look at people who can only afford 2 or 3 bedroom houses. You have to place the kids where the adopters are.

What if the children have very different needs from each other? It could be the case that one set of parents is simply not enough. There are some very complex needs with children in care, much more so than I think most people realise. For instance anxiety can mean quite extreme needs in terms of control and attention. If two siblings are competing for that attention it can be impossible to spend much time with either, you are just firefighting. Or worse, perhaps one is not competing at all, and so getting lost from their parents’ attention. You might think that is just poor parenting, but in extreme cases of anxiety, where the child needs to know that the parent has them in mind literally all the time, you’d be wrong. Such children need a lot of 1 on 1 time, both at home and at school.

What about vastly different ages? They will have different needs, and not just because of the developmental differences. There is an age (conventional wisdom says 7 although I’d put it at about 10 for my son) where friends and other adults are more of an influence on a child than you as parents. In a sense older children don’t need to have a parent living with them, but younger children may well need it. That’s not a blanket statement, obviously, but when placing vulnerable children you do need to think about who they most need in their life at that point, to aid the transition and make sure their needs are being met. Most long-term foster carers are primed to look after teenagers, effectively as guardians. Most adopters are primed to look after primary-school age kids or younger, basically as parents. Adopters are allowed to do parenting things that long term foster carers simply aren’t able to do (short–term carers of very young kids are different). My son’s foster carer never helped him with the toilet or in the bath for instance. Not because she didn’t want to, she just wasn’t allowed to even though he was only 4 or 5. No lie-ins watching TV all together in bed in the mornings. Nothing that could be emotionally close in any way. They can’t administer a lot of medication. Foster carers can’t choose schools or take them on holiday without permission. And you can’t go abroad without a lot of paperwork. Those smiling border control guards aren’t asking the child what their name is because they are being friendly you know; if you are not the legal parent it is almost impossible to get a child into some countries — bit of a problem for carers and guardians and certainly no last minute impulse breaks in the sun or fun school trips.

So yes, there are lots of good reasons why siblings might be separated. But if they are then they should be kept in contact. I wrote a blog post about that a few months ago. So feel free to read it!